Monday’s 4:30 a.m. practice at the Lee District RECenter started with questions, confusion and tears. Before anybody swam, 15 to 20 Curl-Burke swimmers huddled together and talked.
Swimmers wanted reassurance about their dear swim mates, sisters Emma and Molly Merrill, 13 and 9, in the aftermath of a car accident late Saturday afternoon that took the lives of their parents.
“It was,” said coach Paul Makin, “a rough morning.”
Michael K. Merrill, 47, and Jeanne M. Merrill, 42, died late Saturday afternoon on the Fairfax County Parkway after their Honda Pilot was hit by another car, veered into oncoming traffic and was struck again by a car and truck. Emma and two younger sisters, ages 3 and 18 months, were in the car at the time but suffered only minor injuries.
Molly had been watching movies at a friend’s house.
The Merrills were admired as the best kind of swim parents: deeply involved and intensely interested, but never overbearing, Makin and Curl-Burke Coach Mark Faherty said. Both seemed to enjoy hanging out with other parents at the Alexandria facility.
“It was a very tight-knit family,” said Faherty, who coached Emma for five years until she graduated into Makin’s group just over a year ago. “Jeanne and Michael were very big on that. They wanted to be there to support their girls.”
Emma’s and Molly’s teammates worried Monday about their friends, and can’t wait to welcome them back into the pool. After practice, they assembled baskets with teddy bears and other goodies. Curl-Burke Swim Club will offer the girls lifetime membership; of their myriad concerns and worries, paying for swim lessons will not be one of them.
“We want to set it up so they can continue to swim as long as they want to swim,” Faherty said. “They love swimming so much. It will be good for the girls to get back.”
Their parents’ funeral is schedule for Thursday. Some of the team’s more mature swimmers will attend.
Emma, the eldest sister, swims four to five days a week and qualified last year for Potomac Valley Swimming’s junior championships and the Eastern Zone meet.
“Emma, I don’t have anybody that trains harder than she does,” Makin said. “She is really intense.”
Everyone knows Emma’s little sister as a speed demon. Molly swims two times per week under David Hall.
“She’s a racer,” Makin said. “She loves racing. We call her ‘full-tilt.’ She’s got one speed, and it’s ‘go.’”
Michael Merrill was a retired Navy pilot working with the Department of Homeland Security. Jeanne Merrill was a consultant for Booz Allen. Faherty and Makin described the family in memorials posted on Curl-Burke Swim Club’s Web site. Here are two excerpts:
Three of the girls were in the backseat of the car and other than a few bumps, cuts, bruises, and a broken leg came out of it safely. Yesterday, I was able to visit the house and see everybody. Most of the family members had already arrived to offer love and comfort. Just previous to my arrival around 1:30 pm, Emma had just pulled out another piece of glass from her hair. A reminder that it was not even 24 hours before that moment that she was pulled from a destroyed vehicle. The Washington Post article mentioned that the family was just going out to pick up their food from Bertucci’s, which got me thinking. How many families of 6 (5 minus Molly) would jump in the car, in the rain, to go pick up pizza. This speaks to how they lead their life and how important being together as a family was. Like many families, they spend most of their non-working hours running around from activity to activity and for them with the two babies in toe.
Jeanne and Mike, very intense soccer parents who admittedly had no idea about the swimming world when we started, were there every step of the way. At every practice Emma walked down onto the Lee District pool deck with mom (and always with baby or two) beside her. When practice started, Jeanne would go upstairs with her girls and watch her daughter, or do work, or do whatever it is moms do while practice is going on. Afterward she’d always come on deck and ask how Emma was doing and then we’d chit-chat for a few minutes about our families and she’d sometimes ask “big sister”-type questions about my personal life and if I was causing stress for my mother! But she was always there for her daughter and looking back I feel like she was there for me, too. At meets it was mainly Mike on duty. He was as intense as you could be as a swim parent, but he was always respectful of me and my coach-swimmer relationship with his daughter. The questions he’d ask me (and believe me there were many!) were always positively constructed and you could tell he just wanted to learn more about the sport so he could support his little girl as best he could.
Both coaches visited the girls. Emma is getting around fine but, Makin said, it’s difficult to tell how either she or her sister is doing. At least, though, they’ve received an outpouring of support from the community.
“The family, it is a large support group,” Faherty said. “The family has really united together. The community, the neighborhood, the school, Curl-Burke and even their summer-league team, the South Run Seahawks, everyone has really been pulling together to help support the family. They’re in good hands.”